Exclusive: Abhishek Bachchan’s Docu-Series ‘Sons Of The Soil’ Will Make You Want to Watch Kabaddi

Exclusive: Abhishek Bachchan’s Docu-Series ‘Sons Of The Soil’ Will Make You Want to Watch Kabaddi

Malini Agarwal

Abhishek Bachchan has always been someone who has pushed the envelope with everything that he has done. Apart from films, he has now ventured into sports entrepreneurship and is being an extremely involved and able leader of the Indian Pro Kabaddi league team — Jaipur Pink Panthers. Today, he is out with the sports documentary-series called ‘Sons Of The Soil’ which documents and gives us a closer look into the life and struggles of the Pink Panthers and more.

I got a chance to catch the first two episodes of the docu-series and I am absolutely hooked! It’s such an interesting and riveting sports documentary. And to get some more insight into what it means to own a Kabaddi team and how the documentary came about, I caught up with Abhishek Bachchan himself. He was the first celebrity that I interviewed 20 years ago at Go 92.5 FM and I wrote about it being my ‘Abhishek Bachchan Fiasco‘ because I totally bombed that interview as I was so star-struck. I was hoping for a redemption with this conversation!

Excerpts from the interview:

You know, many people might be thinking what Abhishek Bachchan is doing buying a kabaddi team! You’ve said this yourself. So, I want to know, what made you buy a kabaddi team?

As much as I wanted a lovely anecdote, it kind of just landed on my lap. My friend Charu Sharma, who is the brainchild of the Pro Kabaddi League, and I socially meet quite often. He knows I am a big sports fan, specially a fan of football. In one chance meeting at a social gathering, he said ‘I know you love football, but what do you think about doing something with kabaddi?’. It kind of piqued my interest. He spoke about how he was putting together the Pro Kabaddi League and instinctively something just clicked. The backstory is that I have always had a desire to do something in sports ever since I came back to India after my studies. When this Kabaddi opportunity came along, I just knew it was perfect. Kabaddi in India is an indigenous sport, the origins are in Hindu mythology, almost everyone has played this sport at some point in their lives. When I saw some videos of the sport, it was so exhilarating to watch. I just felt instinctively that I really want to be a part of this journey and I agreed and signed on and it went on from there. People ask me, why not cricket? Look, I love cricket, every Indian does. But I don’t feel I can contribute much to the sport. I think cricket is superbly set up and they have great players. I was sure that when I started sports entrepreneurship, I wanted to do something where I know I can make a difference, and Kabaddi it was. I am glad I made that decision and the rest, as they say is history!

What I really like is that when you watch it, it makes you feel for the players. Very often when you think of a sport, you don’t really think of the individual players and what they go through and their dreams. What did you learn from the guys of your team?

Firstly, it’s been a very rewarding experience starting from the first season back in 2014. Let me tell you, what you see today is a huge change in what they were like. They were so shy and such introverts. I remember, in Season 1, I actually went to the training camp and spent weeks with the boys. I used to do mock interviews with them pretending to be a journalist and ask them questions just to make them comfortable, saying now it’s going to happen with you all and you need to know. The weren’t used to this, all they used to talk about was Kabaddi and that was it. I had to try and make them comfortable in that environment which is going to be thrust upon them, the razzmatazz, the lights, camera and the glamour, everything that the Pro Kabaddi League was setting up to do, which these guys hadn’t seen or done before. Initially it was a lot of hard work and the best thing was, after season 2, they just took to it. And today, they are all media and social media savvy. I remember spending time with some of the players, setting up social media accounts for them saying you need to interact with the fans. That’s how basic they were. And now, to see how they’ve progressed is just so rewarding. But at heart, they are still very simple and down-to-earth. They all come from humble backgrounds, it’s wonderful to see what a difference the league has made to their lives. Not just in terms of perceptions, but monetarily as well. The kind of money some of them make today, they would never have done in their lifetime. Amazon Prime Video, when they set out to do this, were very clear that they didn’t just want to make a documentary on kabaddi, but they really dealt with the lives of these guys. They have approached it very emotionally. You know, half way through the show, you are actually emotionally invested in the lives of these players and that’s amazing.

They say that with every sport, there is a particular physical and mental toll it takes on you and your body. With Kabaddi, they say it’s got to do with holding your breath. But I am sure there is so much more to it than that. What have you learnt from the game?

Well, I have played a little bit of kabaddi as a child, but yes you are absolutely right. Everybody thinks its about how you hold your breathe and tagging as many people as you can. But once you get to into professional Kabaddi sport, you get to know that it is a lot more than that. It’s got equal amounts of strategy as that of chess probably. You have to plan your move, anticipate what the other person is going to do, the amount of mind games that is involved is massive. It’s not just a physical game, it’s a mental game. You have to be so aware as it’s a very fast and relentless game. It’s not just josh, it’s hosh.

Another thing I thought was very interesting was how you gave this young coach a second chance even though a lot of people wouldn’t have. I think that was really inspiring. There’s a basketball movie called ‘The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh’ that is all about finding the secret sauce to forming a team that’s flailing to winning. What do you think was the secret sauce that turned it around for you guys?

You know, being a team owner, you’re not just an owner. There is a huge need for time management. We can be very technical about it and go down to the stats, etc. But I think anybody who plays sports knows that the stats really doesn’t show you the real picture. You have to believe in some sort of equation. What I really liked about Srini (Srinivasreddy Lingampally) is that he is very young and from all the coaches I have known, I feel he is somebody who really thinks about the strategy of the game. Once you get involved in kabaddi, you realise that they are a bit set about how they want to coach you, what you have to do and what you shouldn’t. I found Srini was very different from that and that’s what I liked about him. After the first season, things didn’t work out the way we wanted and obviously injuries also play a large part. But I saw a spark in him, that’s why I chose to get him back on.

You know watching the two episodes, something that really struck me was this action between Pink Panthers and U Mumba. What is the reason people get so excited to see these two teams play?

To be honest, I think it comes down to the first ever match between Jaipur Pink Panthers and U Mumba on 26th July, 2014. U Mumba is actually owned by my friend, Ronnie Screwvala. That was the first ever match played in the Pro Kabaddi League. They were also the two teams to reach the finale, and Jaipur won. I think that’s how it started, it became like a rivalry. Whenever they both are playing, the boys just give it back much more. But that is what happens with most sports, right? You don’t just play for the points to win, but because you are so involved in the completion.

It’s quite cool to see your family at the matches too — Mr. Bachchan, Aishwarya and Aaradhya. You named your team Panthers because you call your father that. How have they supported you through this journey?

The family has been very supportive. They won’t be able to travel with me to each match but they watch on television. The last thing I do before I enter the stadium is to speak to my wife. It’s become like a tradition, I can’t enter the stadium without doing that. After the match, Dad or Aishwarya call me up and give me their pointers from what they have watched on TV, which is a different perspective for me watching on field. They have been very forthcoming. Kabaddi is a game where it’s difficult to stay calm throughout, you end up getting very involved. If you see the footage, you’ll see that it’s not just my family but everybody in the stadium who get super involved.

We are an Amazon generation now where we are really into bingeing on shows. And as an owner of a Kabaddi team, what led you to turn your and your team’s experience into a documentary?

I was working with Amazon Prime Video on the show called Breathe. There was a casual discussion happening then and I realised a few of them were very passionate about Kabaddi. So I invited them to a few games and that’s when the discussion organically came about. They have done a great job with sports documentaries previously. They have one on football too, called ‘All Or Nothing’. But they were excited because kabaddi was a sport they didn’t really cover. What excited me was the way they wanted to go about presenting it on the platform. You are just opening up a sport to more than 190 countries where they hardly know of the sport, let alone watch it. So all the pieces really fell into place and it happened.

For people who aren’t kabaddi fans yet, and who will become after watching this, what is it that you want to tell them about the docu-series?

I think you put that perfectly — people who aren’t fans of the sport will become one after watching this. That’s the goal and it’s a huge endorsement for the sport and a huge service to the Kabaddi world. I invite all my friends to watch the matches that happen just once and I tell them that if you don’t start following it, I’ll be surprised. And all of them do, they look forward to each season and each game. The sport is that magnetic.

I sure am going to go back and watch the rest of the episodes, as the show has dropped on Amazon Prime Video today. Go and check it out and let me know how you guys like it!